Questions and Answers about Bible Translations
by Ernest Pickering, Th.D.
This document was prepared by the author to help answer the questions of lay people in the Fourth Baptist Church of which he is pastor. The author is aware of the fact that there are good men who hold differing views on the subject addressed. He is also aware of the fact that there are vital and scholarly problems lying behind many of the issues addressed to which he has not spoken in this document. It is not the purpose of this document to give an exhaustive or technical treatment of the subject, but merely to acquaint lay people with a few of the questions that are raised and provide them with what we hope are proper answers to these questions.
What is a Bible translation?
It is the rendering into another language of the message contained in the original Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written.
Are all translations (versions) of the Bible reliable?
No. Some are not reliable. Perhaps they were done by incompetent people or by theologically unsound people. Perhaps they were produced to forward the peculiar points of a cult (e.g. The New World Translation, Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Is there a difference between a translation and a paraphrase?
Yes. A translation is the result of a serious attempt to render the exact meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew into a current language. A paraphrase takes greater liberty with the text, and the author often expands the thought beyond the meaning of the original. Thus, the paraphrase, at least in many instances, becomes more of a commentary than a translation. An example of a paraphrase would be Good News for Modern Man.
Are there any translations that are inspired by God and thus without error?
No. All translations are man-made. In cases where the translators were born-again believers the Lord no doubt helped them and gave them wisdom in their work, but they did not receive the special superintending that the original authors of Scripture received as mentioned in 2 Peter 1:20-21. The following statement, typical of the position of some, would therefore be incorrect:
The King James Bible (A. V., 1611) is the inerrant Word of God (“The King James Contender,” April, 1980).
If no existing translation is without error, what do we mean when we say we believe that the Bible is the “verbally-inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God?”
We mean by this what the Church has understood historically, which is, that the original authors of the Old and New Testament canonical books were directly controlled by the Holy Spirit as they wrote so that every word they penned was exactly what God intended without violating their own individuality and while utilizing their own vocabulary, and that the final product, the original manuscripts, were without error or omissions.
Do we possess the original manuscripts today?
No. The original manuscripts have long since disappeared.
How do we know then that we have an accurate Bible?
Through a meticulous process known as “textual criticism” all existing copies of the Bible from early centuries are examined, compared, and following accepted guidelines, the original reading is determined. Important differences in textual readings are relatively few and almost none would affect any major Christian doctrine.
Could we say that God superintended the preservation of His Word through the translation process with the result that the King James Version as we now have it is, in truth, the only accurate and trustworthy translation?
Yes, we could say this, and some do, but it would not be an accurate statement. There is no Biblical evidence that supports this concept of the preservation of the text.
Are the Greek manuscripts which were used as the basis for the King James Version more reliable than other manuscripts of the Greek New Testament?
In 1633, there was published in Europe an edition of the Greek New Testament edited by Banaventure and Abraham Elzevir. Contained in an explanatory introduction to this edition was the statement (in Latin): “The text that you have is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or perverted.” The two words “text” and “received” became the basis for the phrase “Textus Receptus” (TR) and is the particular Greek text some contend is the only valid one, and the King James Version, based, as they say, upon this text, is therefore the only valid translation. It needs to be noted, however, that the “Textus Receptus” is not the “received text” in the sense that it is approved by God as higher and more authoritative than other Greek manuscripts.
Some English Scholars of the New Testament by the names of B. F. Westcott and F. J. Hort did not accept completely the “Textus Receptus” but followed what is called an “Eclectic Text.” What does this mean?
“Eclectic” means something picked out of various sources. Westcott and Hort decided basically to take all of the various existing manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, study, compare, and evaluate them according to accepted principles of textual study and thus formulate what they considered to be the original text of the New Testament.
Most modern translations follow the “eclectic” method or the so-called “critical text.” A “critical text” is one which, rather than following a single manuscript or family of manuscripts, is derived from an examination of all the variant readings of the different manuscripts. Competent scholars, proceeding on laws pertaining to this science, make a judgment as to which reading is the original.
Were not Westcott and Hort liberal-leaning scholars who had a bias against a high view of Scripture and thus were incapable of correctly judging the evidence for a true text?
The theological position of both of these men has been overdrawn by some in their zeal to prove them wrong. We would not feel obligated to defend every statement they made or every view they held, but such works as Westcott’s commentary on the Gospel of John are still held in high esteem by conservative scholars today. Great conservative scholars (Machen, Warfield, etc.) of the past and present have held to the concept of the “eclectic” text as propounded by these men.
Does not the King James Version promote the doctrine of the deity of Christ more emphatically in certain key passages than other more modern translations?
In a study of ten versions and how they render eight (8) key passages in the New Testament that have possible reference to the deity of Christ, the New International Version in its translation ascribes deity directly to Christ in seven out of the eight; the Modern Language Bible in six of the eight; the King James Version ascribes direct deity to Christ in only four of these passages. (Cf. chart, “The King James Version Debate,” by Carson, p. 64).
Does the fact that verses, phrases, or words found in the King James Version are omitted in a modern translation (such as the New International Version) prove that such a translation has robbed us of a portion of God’s Word?
The little tract, “Should We Trust the New International Version?” is typical of other booklets and pamphlets of a similar nature. They line up verses or portions of verses that appear in the King James Version, show that the NIV omits these verses or portions, and then state in a caption, “NIV Omits Too Much of the Bible.” The deduction is that if you leave out anything found in the King James Version you have left out part of the Bible. This is manifestly preposterous and has never been the position of reputable evangelical scholars, even those who would defend the King James Version as the best version. The question that must be asked is not, “Is the verse, phrase, or word in question found in the King James Version?” but rather, “Is it found in the original Hebrew or Greek text in which the Word of God was written?”
Why are some words, phrases, or verses found in the King James Version omitted from such contemporary versions as the NIV?
Because competent translators, after poring over and evaluating all available manuscripts containing a particular passage, and applying accepted rules of textual criticism, have concluded that the passage was inserted at a later time and was not a part of the original text. The science of textual criticism and the laws which govern it will not be discussed here. Again, reliable translators are not concerned primarily with whether or not a passage is found in the King James Version or some other version, but rather whether it was part of the original text written by the human authors of holy Scripture.
An example of the above would be the passage in 1 John 5:7-8, which in the King James Version reads as a defense of the Trinity. However, the majority of Greek manuscripts do not contain these words and they thus are omitted in newer versions. There is a footnote in the NIV noting that later manuscripts of the Vulgate (Latin translation) contain these words. The omission in the NIV and other versions does not deny, question, or minimize the doctrine of Christ’s deity. It simply means that translators have tried to be honest, careful, and accurate in rendering the original text into another language. The omission of a few passages which do not have strong textual support in no wise denies the deity of Christ nor cancels out the multitude of other passages that clearly teach His deity.
Is the King James Version the “only true Bible”?
One brother has authored a booklet which is representative of the position of others. It is titled, “God Wrote Only One Bible” (by J. J. Ray). He defends the concept that the “Textus Receptus” and the King James Version comprise that true Bible. But it should be remembered that neither the “Textus Receptus” nor the King James Version constitute the “Bible” that God wrote! That Bible was found in the original manuscripts, authored by the inspired penmen of God.
Are the variations in readings between the various Greek manuscripts a cause for concern on the part of the average layman? Do these variations in some way cast doubt on the actual existence of the Word of God?
No. This should not be cause for concern. Dr. H. S. Miller in his work, “General Biblical Introduction,” declared:
These variations include such matters as differences in spelling, transposition of letters, words, clauses, order of words, order of sentences, reduplication, etc. No doctrine is affected, and very often not even the translation is affected.
J. A. H. Hort, in “Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek,” stated:
The amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.
Stanley Gundry observes:
Most “textual problems” are considered resolved by most textual critics . . . . Actually, most of the discrepancies that need study by the textual critic are trivialities; and most of these questions are considered resolved. Only a few outstanding problems remain, and these do not affect doctrine or divine command to us (“What Happened to Those King James Verses?”, Moody Monthly, 1980, p. 46).
Is it true that great fundamentalists of the past have utilized exclusively the King James Version and would use no other?
This is not true. Ample evidence could be given to show that great fundamental leaders such as R. A. Torrey, C. I. Scofield, James M. Gray, W. B. Riley, and many others used and sanctioned translations other than the King James Version.
If the King James Version is the “Word of God” in some unique sense that is not true of other versions, then do non-English-speaking peoples not have the Word of God?
Obviously there is a problem if one English version is the “Word of God” above all others. What of all the thousands of believers who have the Bible in French, German, or some other language? Are they deprived of the true Word of God?
To speak of proper, evangelical translations of Scripture as “perversions” is not wise nor is it in good taste.
What is the most popular translation of the Scriptures in use today?
The most widely-used translation is the King James Version. It was completed in 1611 A.D. by biblical scholars in England; and its name is derived from King James I, the reigning sovereign of the time. It is a greatly-loved rendition of the Scriptures, having served the English-speaking church for over three and one half centuries.
Why has the King James Version been so popular?
Because for most of three and a half centuries it has been virtually the only English version available, on any large scale, to the average person. All commentaries, dictionaries, and other Bible study aids utilized it as the text to which they referred. Popular reference Bibles such as the Scofield Reference Bible used the King James Version. People were brought to Christ through the preaching of the King James Version and were taught from it after their conversion. Its language is familiar to believers who were raised in Bible-teaching churches. It deserves a place of high esteem among English translations.
Why should some teachers and preachers consider using a translation other than the King James Version for study or ministry?
There are compelling reasons why some fundamental pastors and teachers are now employing versions other than the King James Version in their teaching and preaching. Each pastor and church must decide before the Lord what version of the Scriptures they will employ. These remarks should not be construed as an effort to suggest any course of action with regard to the use of translations. In fairness, however, to those who may be using some translation other than the King James Version, we venture a few remarks as to why they would do so. (Most would use either the New American Standard Version or the New International Version.)
1) The average person today is not conversant with the Elizabethan language in which the King James Version is written. The English language has changed considerably over more than 350 years. (Between 1611 and 1901 the English dictionary was revised 40 times!)
2) The continued use of a version whose language is not contemporary lends credence to the idea (held by many already) that true Bible Christianity is outdated, passé, and irrelevant to a modern world.
3) Large numbers of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been discovered since the days when the King James Version was translated.
Today translators have access to textual information that the translators of the King James Version did not have. In many cases this information enables them to produce a more accurate translation than was possible in 1611 A.D.
The translators of the King James Version used the best texts they had available. The oldest Hebrew manuscript they had dated from about 500 to 900 A.D. The Greek manuscripts dated from the middle ages. Now the latest manuscript finds have given us a Hebrew text for at least portions of the Old Testament dating back to 200 B.C. and some New Testament manuscripts going back to 400 and 500 A.D.
4) The principle purpose of the preacher and Bible teacher is to make clear the Word of God to his hearers. Some believe the message of God in His Word can be more intelligibly presented through the use of a translation in the contemporary language of the people. It should be noted that while large numbers of people raised in fundamental churches love the King James Version and have a strong sentimental attachment to it, they often do not readily comprehend its meaning in numerous passages because of the obscurity of the Old English it employs. Some pastors and Bible teachers feel that the heavy responsibility of making clear God’s message virtually compels them to make use of a contemporary-language translation so as to accomplish this purpose.
What are some guidelines by which to judge a translation?
Why would one translation be chosen over another? Certain considerations would guide in the choice.
1) Is it a true translation?
Paraphrases such as The Living Bible would not be suitable since they are really “commentaries” on the text rather than true translations.
2) Is it produced by men who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture?
Translations such as the Revised Standard Version produced by men who in large part were liberals would be ruled out.
3) Is it the product of a group of translators?
One-man translations (Moffatt’s, Phillip’s) have limitations because they are the results of only one person’s ideas. Checks and balances are needed, which are provided by a group approach.
4) Is it readable and does it have clarity?
This is important. To what extent does the translation communicate to the hearer?
What should be our attitude toward those who use a translation which is produced by evangelical scholars who believe the Word of God, but is different from the translation we prefer?
We should guard our attitudes carefully. Some persons who are ardent advocates of the superiority of a given translation are harsh and even critical in their descriptions and condemnations of those who use any other translations than the one they view as “approved.” Such attitudes and words should be avoided.
Some view those who approve a translation different from the one they use as leaning toward liberalism, as new evangelicals, or, at best, as dangerous compromisers. This is a very unfair and unjust assessment.
Those, for example, who hold that the “Textus Receptus” and the King James Version constitute the true text should certainly be respected and given the liberty to hold this view. On the other hand, those who hold to a different view such as that of an eclectic text, and who employ a translation other than the King James Version in their ministry would be allowed the privilege of doing that without being castigated, maligned, or placed under a cloud of suspicion as possible collaborators in “perverting” the Word of God.
Bitterness in our hearts toward our brethren is sinful no matter what the cause. It is most lamentable when it issues from differences of opinion over Bible translations.
My pastor is using a translation other than the King James Version in his preaching and/or teaching. I am confused when trying to follow in my King James Version. What should I do?
The best thing to do is to purchase a copy of the version your pastor is using (assuming, of course, he is a fundamental preacher and using an acceptable version). Bring this version with you to church and thus you will be able to enjoy and benefit from the ministry of the Word. You can still use your King James Version or other version for private study.
Reproduced by permission of Mrs. Ernest Pickering, wife of the late Ernest Pickering, Th.D., who was Senior Pastor of the Fourth Baptist Church of Minneapolis and President of Central Baptist Seminary. Dr. Pickering authored many articles, pamphlets, and books, preached in many countries of the world, and served on the Board of Baptist World Mission. After a faithful lifetime of service, he went home to be with Christ in the fall of 2000.